The Influence of Violent Entertainment Material on Kids: What Is to Be Done?

GUEST: Robert Pitofsky
VTR: 12/15/1999

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today has been charged by the President of the United States with responsibility for a study to determine whether firms in the movie, music-recording and video game industries are marketing violent materials to young people. Of course, one thinks of television, the cable industry and the Internet itself along with these other likely suspects.

And I believe it’s clear that my guest, Robert Pitofsky, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and former Dean of the Georgetown University Law Center has before him right now one of the most intriguing tasks in or out of government. Particularly is this true when you take note of how Chairman Pitofsky entitled the remarks he made before the National Association of Attorneys General two weeks after his Presidential assignment. His title “The Influence of Violent Entertainment Material On Kids: What Is To Be Done?”. And what is to be done I would ask my guest as he examines the extent to which violent entertainment materials are targeted for or, as he put it in his speech, are available to young people.

What is to be done?

PITOFSKY: Well, the first thing that’s not to … can I start with what should not be done?

HEFFNER: Please. Please.

PITOFSKY: We are not the thought police. And it is not our goal to, to …censor the content of entertainment materials. Really what we think ought to be done is parents should be given fair notice of what the content of these materials are, how violent they are, what the ratings are. And then it’s up to the parents to protect their family. And their kids.

HEFFNER: And if they don’t?

PITOFSKY: Well, then the government has … the government has no role as far as I’m concerned. But you know, 75% of the people who were polled after this program, this… enterprise was announced said that they do care a lot, that they would take steps to protect their children from seeing inappropriate material, and all they want is the information. And they want it accurately and in a form that they can understand. So I think most people would act.

HEFFNER: Now does this take us into the “buyer beware” rather than the “seller beware” category of government action or non-action?

PITOFSKY: Yes and no. I think the industry, the seller, has a responsibility if they’re going to engage in self-regulation. And the three sectors we talked about … music, video games and movies, they all purport to have self-regulation programs. And they all do ratings. They should be held to a standard of doing ratings in a sensible way and not undermining the ratings with the way in which they advertise and market the product. But ultimately the ratings are a form of information and it’s up to the parents to use that information in a way that they think is appropriate for their family.

HEFFNER: Now you say, “held to a standard” … that these industries should be held to a standard. Who holds them to what standard?

PITOFSKY: I think really this is a project to put a spotlight on self-regulation and to…and to make sure that people…understand … whether these self-regulation programs, as I put it before are, are worth the paper they’re written on. That’s what we want to know. Some of them sound very good. But we want to get behind that and find out how they, they truly operate. Beyond that, we want to make sure that the companies … the individual companies … don’t undermine the trade associations’ standards in the way that they market the product.

HEFFNER: There are at least two areas here that I’d like to pursue with you. One, the question, and I’d like to go back to it, and then come back to the question of whether they undermine or do not undermine in the … for full disclosure, I think you know that I …

PITOFSKY: Right.

HEFFNER: … was Chairman of the motion picture industry’s film rating system for some time … twenty years to be exact … so I have some understanding, I think of what goes on there. But let’s go back to the question of … that you state without any hesitation whatsoever, that information, in your estimation will be sufficient. Is there honest, good, untouched information … information that is not undermined in any way. And I go back to the question of “isn’t this a national problem that we’re dealing with here” when we deal with violence in entertainment?

PITOFSKY: It is a national problem. It’s a serious national problem. The reason it came to the surface of public consciousness were those shootings in Colorado and elsewhere in the country. I don’t believe … if I were making a list of the reasons why young people live in what’s been called a toxic public culture, I would not put violent entertainment materials first on my list. There are, there are too many other reasons why these things happen. Breakdown in the family, for example. Availability of guns. Maybe a decline of religion. But if I were making a list, I would put on the list the easy availability of violent entertainment materials to young people. The question then is, what are we going to do about it? Do you want the government censoring King Lear and saying “well, there’s too much gratuitous violence in Act IV and therefore let’s not…let’s not allow that to be available.” I think that’s a cure that’s worse than the disease. On the other hand, I do think that frankly, industry, all three sectors might be able to do better, in terms of making information available. And indeed, since this project was announced, some of them are doing better. The leaders, the more responsible elements of each sector are attracted … are addressing the issue and seem to be doing something about it. Now, do I think information is adequate to solve the problem? No. On the contrary. All I’m saying is I don’t want to adopt a philosophy of doing nothing. This is something, I think it’s something that could be useful.

HEFFNER: In…in your mentioning … guns, the breakdown of the family, the breakdown presumably of religious … the role that religion used to play in our lives, nobody has said that these aren’t major factors, but they also add, that as you suggest, too, insist indeed, that entertainment violence is a factor, too. So, we could at other times talk about guns, and we’d probably agree. And talk about the family and we’d probably agree. And talk about religion, and we’d probably agree. But here we’re talking about entertainment … violent entertainment. Why didn’t you, by the way … why didn’t the President … I shouldn’t say, “why didn’t you”, because you were given this assignment … why weren’t these other suspects brought into the fold?

PITOFSKY: Breakdown of the family? [Chuckle]

HEFFNER: No. No. The other media.

PITOFSKY: Oh, other media, like TV.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

PITOFSKY: Well, I think the notion there was that the FCC was already addressing the question. There are technological…solutions that address it, like the V-chip. I think the theory there was that…if that… if there’s a project there, it’s for the Federal Communications Commission to address.

HEFFNER: Okay. Fair enough. Now, the question of self-regulation. A notion that you believe in very strongly, I gather.

PITOFSKY: I … well, I do know it can work. I also know that quite often self-regulation is just an excuse to put … to push the public off and to push Congress away and avoid legislation. But serious self-regulation, well-intended self-regulation…can work and does work.

HEFFNER: What do you think the best intention could be, would be in this area. You say “well-intended”.

PITOFSKY: Well, I think self-regulation…always turns on the same question. Are … will the powerful elements in a sector of the economy take responsibility for the general nature of presentations marketing in their economy? And will they try, as a group, to crack down on people who, through greed or irresponsibility, market in an inappropriate way? We have very successful self-regulation of advertising in this country. Madison Avenue came to the conclusion they were all better off if some of the excesses of advertising were addressed by the industry. And they’ve done a good job. In the last few years the funeral directors have come to the conclusion that the, that the reputation of all of them is hurt when some relatively few funeral directors exploit a vulnerable clientele. Those are examples of self-regulation that works. I think self-regulation could work in the entertainment industry. And I think it will turn on whether… the powerful interests there are prepared to crack down on… irresponsible elements, recognizing that by ‘crack-down” I don’t mean censorship. If people, creatively want to produce a violent movie or violent rap lyrics and adults want to see it or listen to it, all the more power to them. This is a different issue. This is the exposure of that kind of material to an underage audience.

HEFFNER: Is it possible, do you think, in terms of the way we treat our children today, in terms of the changing viewing patterns from then to now, yesteryear to now? That it’s possible to have materials available for adults that are not almost as much consumed by young folk?

PITOFSKY: Yes, I think it’s possible.

HEFFNER: How would we do that?

PITOFSKY: Well, it’s, it’s difficult. You know, kids are very resourceful about concealing their age. One of the issues, for example is … in movies, which you know exceptionally well. It’s one thing to say that no one under 17 can be admitted to the movie, and give it a rating that describes the picture that way. But the next step is when it’s marketed at the movie theater, who’s paying attention to those ratings? Who is carding these kids or making sure if it’s an R rating that the young people are accompanied by an adult? I don’t think that’s easy to do, but I certainly think it’s possible.

HEFFNER: Do you know the figures as yet of what the percentages are of films that are rated that are R, presumably not for children unless accompanied by parents?

PITOFSKY: I don’t, but I…I seem to recall that it’s a rather high percentage.

HEFFNER: It’s extraordinarily high.

PITOFSKY: Sure.

HEFFNER: I think in my tenure in Hollywood it went up over 60% and now when I get the bulletins, I don’t have to search for a PG or a PG-13, but I know that the Rs overwhelm them.

PITOFSKY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Now, equally important, isn’t it that Jay Leno made a crack on his program when a film, a Hollywood film, a major studio film was rated NC-17 for its sexual content … and Jay Leno said, “so kids can’t see it unless they wait a couple of months and see it on video. Or perhaps see it on cable”. Now, what, what real sense does it make to assume that the … as long as it’s rated, anything goes syndrome is embraced?

PITOFSKY: Well, it’s an argument that the perfect should…should defeat the good. Nothing is going to be perfect. And goodness knows government will never be successful in preventing a 14 year old from claiming he or she is a 17 year old and, and working their way into a multi-plex theater. I realize that. But we can put the ability to make judgments about that in the hands of the parents. And, you know the parents can control, to some extent, the videos, the cables and the TV that their kids watch as well. So, in the end all we’re saying is give the parents the information and let’s hope they … well, let’s expect because most of them say they will, do the job of being responsible in bringing up their kids.

HEFFNER: Do you think that it’s true that in our times with as many latch-key… children as we have and as many divorced… couples and as much pressure as there is, and you are a very realistic person … as much pressure as there is for both members of whatever families are intact to be working, that this, these warnings are sufficient to you? Not, not, not as a parent … but to you, as one who looks at American life today.

PITOFSKY: I recognize all the factors that you, that you point out. No system is going to really turn things completely around, but for those parents, and I am … I’m told it’s the majority, who really care about what their kids see, there seems to me some value in giving them the tools to implement their judgments about what the kids should see.

HEFFNER: You know I used to get calls all the time, when I was Chairman of the rating system … parents who would say, “do you know that my child saw such and such an R rated film. How could you permit that?” Well, how did this child see it? Went next door and was taken to the movies by the parents of, of a friend. Meaning we should have put an X or an NC-17 on that film. That parent was concerned, but not concerned enough to have done what she would have had to have done in order to prevent the, the meeting of her child and that film. You say your information is that most parents want to and will …

PITOFSKY: Well, they say the want to and they say they will. And I, I believe that’s true. That given reliable information they will, they will use it. But there are many parents who won’t. There are many parents who think this whole thing is a waste of time. That there are most important problems in life than whether their kids see an R rated movie. I don’t agree with that, but I understand where they’re coming from and why they have that view.

HEFFNER: Anything goes as long as it’s rated?

PITOFSKY: Ah …. yes, I think that’s … I think it’s right. I don’t know about “anything” … there’s probably some hardcore pornography that even I would draw the line at. But I …

HEFFNER: Hardcore violence?

PITOFSKY: Ah … I, I can’t … you know it brings me back to Saving Private Ryan and ah, …

HEFFNER: King Lear

PITOFSKY: … King Lear. I wouldn’t want the government to say about almost anything “that’s hardcore violence, we will not tolerate it.”

HEFFNER: But hardcore sex, you would accept the government saying that … in fact it does in terms of the legal procedures now.

PITOFSKY: Not our assignment, I’m glad to say. I mean we weren’t asked to look at sex. If we were, we’d still be doing this project long after I left the, the government. There are … apparently Congress is willing to accept some, some limits in that area. In the violence area I haven’t seen anything yet that I would say should be banned by regulation, by government.

HEFFNER: Mr. Chairman, you referred before and now just again to King Lear and to Saving Private Ryan just now. Those are the examples that are always offered when the industry begins to circle the wagons and protect itself. I’ve never known anyone, not anyone who wanted either King Lear or Saving Private Ryan to be censored.

PITOFSKY: Right.

HEFFNER: So that, if I may comment … I, I think those who would oppose what you’ve said, don’t use those examples because there is no intention of doing so. The Commission is concerned with regulation.

PITOFSKY: Right.

HEFFNER: Do you wish to see less and less regulation in multiple areas of our…of American society.

PITOFSKY: Well, that’s … it’s hard to answer that question. In the, in the core area where the FTC is involved, which is competition policy and regulation of advertising, yes, I think … I think that we’ve learned over the last 30 years, 40 years that the free market works well and that many forms of regulation, while well-intended really ended up producing cartels. So I saw … I have a de-regulatory attitude toward much of that kind of regulation. There are other kinds of regulation, environmental regulation, zoning, tax and so forth where I don’t think that kind of generalization would apply.

HEFFNER: But it is in the economic area, it is in the market place area where you feel de-regulation, de-regulation, de-regulation is an…an acceptable mantra.

PITOFSKY: I think it’s worked well. I think it’s worked well. I think de-regulating the airlines…was a good idea. I think de-regulating communications was a good idea. So, we’ve, we’ve profited to a large extent. I … in my, my academic days, I used to produce a figure of how much of the American economy, how much of the gross domestic product was accounted for by regulated industries. And just in my years of teaching it went from 10 to 8 to 7, I think it’s now down to 5 or 6. And I think that it’s worked well.

HEFFNER: It’s worked well by what criterion?

PITOFSKY: Largely, innovation. I think one of the problems with…with regulation, of government fixing the price and deciding who enters and exits a market is that it diminishes incentives to innovation. I think also in most of these areas, when you discount for inflation, prices are lower than they otherwise would have been.

HEFFNER: So, it is in the marketplace that marketplace standards should be used.

PITOFSKY: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And it should be a free marketplace.

PITOFSKY: Yes.

HEFFNER: And, do you think in the area of ideas because the entertainment media claim that they deal with ideas, that the same thing is true. Should be true?
PITOFSKY: Well, there, there probably is a limit somewhere. But I really, I would give the widest ambit to creative incentives. What one generation thinks … as you well know … what one generation thinks is too violent or too … contains too much sex, becomes almost ludicrous a generation or two later. So I, I don’t like the idea of government deciding about gratuitous violence or gratuitous sex. I’d rather put the information out there and let people make their own judgments about what they want to see. And more important for my project, what they want young people to see.

HEFFNER: But to what degree do you factor into this formula the, the fact that young people…see, once you leave the movie theater … I mean I would maintain … you’ll understand I have a personal interest in that in protecting my autobiography, let’s say … that the old system … the rating system made a lot of sense in the days of the Bijou and the Lyric … sure. But we aren’t in those days any longer. Something … as Jay Leno suggested … three months later is really available in media that have no capacity to be limited the way the movies can be limited.

PITOFSKY: I’ve heard the argument that the most violent material available to young people is the evening news. And I think they’ve, they’ve got a point there, they’ve got a point there. But controlling the evening news and requiring ratings it seems to me, again, is worse than the disease. It’s a balancing process, I don’t think we should do that. On your Bijou point. I think it’s interesting. I haven’t done a study, but I’ve heard from more than one source, that these ratings work rather well in small communities …

HEFFNER: HmmMmm.

PITOFSKY: … where the owner of the theater is known by the families whose children attend. And they don’t work nearly as well in metropolitan areas where what you have are these ten screen theaters and a rush of people who buy tickets at the last minute and get in. But look, we’re a society that put a man on the moon. I mean we have computers that rival in intelligence the human mind. I think we could find a way to implement these ratings systems… and not produce chaos at the, at the ticket counter.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, God willing you’re right about that. Which brings us back again to this question, and you’ll forgive me for, for pursuing it so … this question of parental attitudes and parental willingness to do this. Again, the notion that if it’s rated and a parent … and you’ve always, in your career, emphasized the honesty and accuracy of public information about products and consider these films, then, a product …

PITOFSKY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … that if they are honestly and decently rated, parents will make use of that. George Gerbner who was the Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications used to rile me up no end by sitting where you’re sitting and calling the rating system, the movie rating system “an upper middle class conceit”, and he meant that if you were upper middle class, if you were well educated and well financed and had the time and the energy and the funds to spend the kind of time supervising your children the way, presumably, all parents want to supervise their children, then the ratings worked. Not otherwise.

PITOFSKY: Well, I, I think that’s a little tough on the lower class and I think there are many people who, given the wherewithal would pay attention, whether…whatever the class category they fall in. There’s probably some truth to that. That… people who have the time to pay attention to these issues probably do pay attention to them a little more than others. But I, I can’t, I can’t create a perfect world out of a rating system. All we can do is make things better. Let me just give you an example. Each of these three segments – - music, video, movies – - has a self-regulation program and has a rating disclosure system. One of the questions we want to ask is what difference does the rating system make? Do, do retailers really control the availability of music when the, when the record jacket says for a mature audience only? If we’re going to have a rating system, let’s do the best we can with the rating system and not defeat the idea of a rating system by saying “well, you haven’t cured all the problems in the world”. Of course we haven’t.

HEFFNER: Do you think that, that these … you obviously do … that these mechanical devices will give parents the opportunity … the President said, when he was talking, not about this, but about the V-chip …

PITOFSKY: Right.

HEFFNER: … finally the control over their children’s viewing will be in the hands of parents once again.

PITOFSKY: I think that puts it just right. The control is in their hands, whether they exercise it or not is up to them. We should also mention the, the marketing of these products in terms of advertising. Some of this … some of the advertising that we’ve seen seems to undermine the whole … I mean it’s called “for mature audiences only” and then it, it might be advertised in a publication that is primarily seen by young people. I think we want to look into that … that’s the charge, we want to examine that question and see if there’s some truth to it.

HEFFNER: Go to the movies and see the trailers that are played when kids … little kids are in the movies … for R rated films.

PITOFSKY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Well, I … a complicated issue and I do want to thank you so much for joining me today, Mr. Chairman. I hope that you’re very successful in identifying what it is you want to identify. And then come back, and I hope you’ll talk about it.
PITOFSKY: I’d be delighted to. Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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